Interview conducted by our favourite four-to-the-floor expert, The Insider.
He’s long been an icon, deep in the underground Italo Disco and Balearic scenes, even though his name may not be as widely known as those of some of the company that he keeps. Making left-of-centre wonky dance-floor electronica for over two decades, he’s having a resurgence of late – with his remixing skills in high demand. He’s worked under a host of pseudonyms – Ajello, and Crimea X, are just two – and with a vast list of respected DJs and artists, that includes Daniele Baldelli, Chris Coco, Dimitri From Paris, and Leo Mas & Fabrice. Next up is the Code041 E.P., on Jimpster’s newly launched electronica label, Cyphon Recordings. Here, I chat with this unassuming, uber-talented, Italian gentleman, who has to be one of his country’s finest exports, Luca Roccatagliati AKA DJ Rocca.
It’s a pleasure to talk to you Luca. Where are you today?
The pleasure is all mine. Today I’m at my home, in the studio where I do my music productions. Unfortunately today is a rainy day, so I’m in here sorting out my projects.
Where is it you are from exactly?
I’m based in Reggio Emilia, where I grew up – 170, 000 people, between Parma and Modena, north Italy, very close to Bologna. I grew up in a land where people have always been closely linked to music. When I was a teen I had the opportunity to see many concerts by well-known rock and jazz groups, and above all the opportunity to attend many discos and clubs. In my territory between the 1980s, `90s and 2000s, there were the best clubs in Italy, where the house, new wave, techno, drum and bass, hip hop and breakbeat scenes were all very developed.
Is there still a big a music scene there?
Unfortunately today the scene is small and much more fragmented.
Tell us something interesting about where you live?
My city is a very human place. It’s in a strategic position, where you can reach either Milan or Rome in a very short time. I could say that I am very close to both the countryside and the city, and this lets me choose whether to have tranquility or the city chaos. My studio is based in my flat, and my record collection too. I live here with my wife and my cat.
Do you play out much these days?
Honestly, these days I play more with my live projects than as a DJ. Mostly I play in theatres, festivals, and jazz clubs, but of course I do miss spinning records in clubs.
How does being an artist today compare to 20 years ago?
Frankly, not much has changed, only in the amount of people who make music with a computer, and in the average quality of the productions that come out.
A couple of fundamental aspects that for me are irrespective of the time that has passed, are certainly the quality and the personality of the music. Today self-production is much more developed than before. If once you had to find a label that believed in you, now you can emerge even if you go it alone. With the fluid expansion of music consumption, a producer has more options. That doesn’t mean that major labels don’t decide who gets to be the next star, but for underground producers like me, there are huge opportunities now.
What would you tell a young Luca today about pursuing a life in the music industry?
Like all personal business ventures, I recommend making a big investment in yourself. In terms of technology, knowledge, relationships, and collaborations, the music industry is a world as romantic as it is wild. You have to be very smart and know what is happening around us, over time you understand how to be both diplomatic and resolute, but it is an art that must be learned in the field, no book or manual can teach it.
Where was Italo disco born who were the first DJs and artists at the beginning of this movement?
Honestly, what I know has come from what I’ve read, or heard from friends who have been in the scene since the beginning. Italo Disco was born from the progress of musical technology: synthesizers and drum machines have given musicians the possibility to create without having access to horn sections, rhythm sections, arrangers and well-equipped studios. In the beginning many of these producers fell into two different camps, namely those who wanted to make new wave and those who wanted to make disco, and they were really the complete antithesis of each other.
Productions like Problems D’Amour or Tenax were generated by a new wave urgency, while La Dolce Vita or Dirty Talk were influenced by disco. Naturally both approaches were strongly influenced by a typically Italian way of arranging and composing, with an obsessive attention to melody. This has meant that today’s listener feels Italo Disco is a separate, unique genre.
As far as I can tell, nerve centres of Italo Disco production were located all over Italy, but with a greater concentration located centrally or in the north. The DJs who played that genre usually used the worst records, only those on the same scene as Daniele Baldelli played the most interesting records, the ones that can still be played today.
In your opinion, who are the icons of the Italian scene?
If we’re talking about dance music producers, there are lots. From Rago and Farina, Fred Ventura, Mauro Malavasi and Maurizio Dami for Italo Disco, to Don Carlos, Claudio Rispoli and Gemolotto for Dream House. But also awesome new wave, or drum and bass, or techno producers too. The Italian dance scene is full of icons.
When did you first start to dabble with music?
I have been very lucky, because my parents enrolled me in the Music Academy when I was ten years old. From that moment I have dedicated myself more and more to music over the years, first as a musician, then as a DJ.
As a DJ, where did you play in your early years?
When I was a teenager, I DJed at friends’ parties, until, in the mid-90s I decided along with some very open-minded friends, to open a club. A club which became very important in northern Italy. The place was called Maffia, with a double F. From there I started being a professional DJ, and soon after, a producer.
What kind of tracks were you playing?
I was into drum & bass – Photek, LTJ Bukem, Reprazent and Peshay were my favourites, but later also Dillinja, Lemon D, London Elektricity, Optical, and, of course, 4Hero.
I was on the art direction team at Maffia, so we had lots of great guest DJs – Goldie, Matthew Herbert, Andrew Weatherall, Dimitri From Paris, James Lavelle, Howie B, DJ Krush, Metro Area, Prins Thomas… just to name a few.
When did you make the move over to production?
I was actually “late” as a producer for various reasons. First of all, the difference between being a “traditional” musician, and one who instead uses electronic equipment. I trained as a flautist and was as an aspiring jazz player. At the Music Academy I was encouraged to think of all other forms of musical expression shit, consider them inferior – let alone a DJ who produces dance music. Then, at the beginning of the `90s, my open mind allowed me to pick up some clues and change from this point of view. I discovered that with electronic equipment one man could be not only a flautist but also a pianist, a drummer, an arranger, a sound engineer, and, most importantly, an experimenter. The possibilities for expression became endless. The `80s had already produced some electronic greats, but increasingly accessible technology, at a progressively more humane price, brought me closer to that world until, thanks to Maffia, I clearly understood that this was the future of music. I finally felt good and guilt-free. My early days were undoubtedly naïve, with productions spawned from a broken PC and an Akai sampler. Samples upon samples, and sounds mixed badly, but with increased awareness of dealing with the raw material, the more I shaped, the more malleable it became. Although I was never happy with my first creations, some brave labels started releasing my songs. My first ever release was a remix of Piero Piccioni as Maffia Sound System, for an Italian compilation.
You`ve released music on a ton of great labels – too many to mention! What do you feel has been your most notable release to date?
I don’t know how to answer this question, I value all my productions, both the minor ones, and the best-known ones. Obviously, my stuff with Dimitri from Paris or with Daniele Baldelli, have been more noticed for clear reasons.
Who do you think is making great stuff these days?
For sure Robert Glasper, everything on Space Grape Records, but also Luca Lozano, Sam Gendel, Khidja, Lars Bartkuh, Emperor Machine, Opolopo…
Are there some young ‘Italian’ artists who you think are doing something special?
This is a difficult question, because there are a lot of Italian producers and they are mostly good, and above all friends, so, if I forget to mention someone, I would end up in trouble!
You’ve played in many big, important clubs all around the world. Is there a city that’s appealed to you most, that you’ve enjoyed playing in the most?
New York, Sao Paulo, London, Berlin and Tokyo are my favorite places…maybe because they are big, big cities, and I can play my music to an open-minded crowd.
You’ve played alongside some of the greats including Daniele Baldelli. Why do you think he has become so iconic?
I met Daniele for the first time almost 20 years ago – because we were spinning records in the same venue. He used to play some of my Ajello stuff, and from that moment we decided to produce music together. Of course, I also followed him as a teenager, but I never knew him personally then. I think Baldelli is so iconic because he was so eclectic, mixing genres when very few people did. It`s now the common style of the best DJs in the world, but in the `80s mixing electro with funk, disco with jazz, or Italo disco with African and Brazilian music was pioneering.
Tell us about your relationship with Dimitri From Paris. How long have you guys known each other?
More than ten years ago I got a comment on a song on Soundcloud, from a certain “DFP”, saying “I’m your fan”. When I realized that DFP was Dimitri From Paris, I made him a bold proposal: I asked if we could make music together. After the first few attempts, he was happy with my way of composing and my choice of sounds, and after a few songs he began to trust me. At that moment our Erodiscotique project was born, still active today, with a beautiful friendship, a repertoire of several singles, various remixes, and an album.
Are you still involved in Crimea X?
Unfortunately, I am not. I’m very proud of the Crimea X project. It was a duo with a close friend of mine from my hometown. We were both influenced by Krautrock and John Carpenter, and we made some good singles and a couple of albums, one of those produced by Bjorn Torske.
Is your label Danny Was A Drag King still active?
Danny Was A Drag King was a Hell Yeah! sub-label, run by me and my friend Marco Gallerani. It was a Nu Disco label, active for nearly five years. This label is dormant for now, for various reasons, mainly down to a lack of time, but sooner or later some new releases will arrive!
Moving on to your new release. What can you tell us about the label, Cyphon?
Cyphon is a new label run by that great producer, Jimpster, and his partner Tom Roberts. It`s a label that tries to explore the techno world with today’s ears, so its productions based on drum machines and synths, but also more experimental, with references and sounds from IDM, electro, Detroit, and Berlin techno
What does the E.P. title, Code 041, refer to?
In truth, it`s a fictitious code, I was imagining a sort of secret formula for cloning humans. One of those retro-futuristic thoughts, typical of the electronic world of the `90s, which inspired the creation of the songs.
Can you talk us through the E.P. a little?
I listened a lot to Autechre, Plaid, B12, Beaumont Hannant, The Orb / Alex Paterson, and was inspired by that magical moment in UK techno. I’m also really into jazz lately, so I was been trying to incorporate these two aspects into the music on the E.P. Some songs are more IDM, like The Bigger Lake, some are more Jazz, like Omega… the other two tracks are maybe a good compromise between the two inspirations.
What other projects are you working on, that you can share?
Many, many projects…two live projects, oriented towards Jazz but with a lot of electronics. One project with Franco D’Andrea, and the other with Giovanni Guidi – two piano legends from the European modern jazz scene. Soon also a collaboration with my friend Chris Coco and a legendary Italian new wave singer, NicoNote. The collaboration with Capofortuna is also new, with an album to be released in the spring on Soul Clap Records, entitled Roccapofortuna. After the summer a single will be released with Greek producer, Lex, but there are many remixes planned for this year…a couple of remixes for two dance legends, Carol Jiani and Kano, but also one on Balearia records, a new remix with Dimitri for the New York group, Midnight Magic, and just last week Baldelli and I finished a new E.P.
What do you like to do when you are not making music?
Cooking, walking in the woods, riding my bike, and watching good movies.
You’ve been working in music for most of your life. If you didn’t follow this path, what do you think you might have been doing instead?
Wanting to be romantic, I would have loved to work in the world of cinema, but if I have to keep my feet on the ground, I would have been an employee in the gas and water distribution company of my city … a job that I did until twenty years ago, before dedicating myself, body and soul, to music.
Thank you for your valuable time.
Thank you for your nice questions!
DJ Rocca’s Code041 can be ordered directly from Jimpster’s Cyphon Recordings.